WWE 2K23 Review
Continued improvements in the ring
While it may not have ranked on my best of list, WWE 2K22 was arguably the most pleasant surprise of 2022. Following years of diminishing returns, 2K Sports finally took a step back and worked to figure out how to save their flailing franchise. Last year's iteration ended up being one of the best entries in the series to date, and an overall treat to play. Although I think that WWE doesn't necessarily need to be on a yearly schedule, WWE 2K23 is here to hopefully continue in a promising new direction.
Following the complete revamping 2K22 did, the combat engine of WWE 2K23 doesn't seek to reinvent things once again. The light/heavy striking and grappling system remains in place, as does the focus on individual superstar combos. After years of cluttering up the engine with frustrating mechanics, the simplified system was a very much welcome change, and it is still great here. One mini-game mechanic that has been improved from the previous year is the kick-out. The system has bounced back and forth from button mashing to a timing-based mechanic, and this year the developers decided to just let players choose which one they prefer. Button mashing to kick out was how I was raised on these games, but the improved use of the analog stick to time a recovery is easier now as well.
With the engine largely remaining unchanged, though, this means that the issues I had with it last year are still prevalent. Once again, the handling of weapons feels stiff and awkward. Whether it's going under the ring for something, or grabbing an item already out on the floor, something still feels off. There are also times where items get wedged into positions where you can't grab them at all, which is annoying to say the least. The wonky collision issues still rear their head here as well. Once again, this specifically concerns moments where your opponent is either scaling the turnbuckle or trying to re-enter the ring. It still often leads to you missing on the grapple or strike you attempted to land. Considering the major issues were mostly hammered out last year, it's frustrating that some of the same problems continue to pop up.
The usual suite of modes is back once again for WWE 2K23. Outside of the copious match types available for both single and multiplayer action, 2K Showcase, Universe, MyGM, MyRise and MyFaction are also around. The one major match type added this year is one that has been long-requested: WarGames. WWE's version of the iconic WCW staple has become one of the more exciting matches in the real-life product, and it makes a successful jump to the game franchise. With two rings encased in a giant cage, there's a lot that goes into a WarGames match, and I wasn't entirely sure if the game would be able to handle it. But credit should be given to the gameplay, which manages to handle all the absurdity that goes into one of these matches without becoming too unwieldly. Its chaos personified, and the title does a great job of capturing that insanity.
For this year's version of 2K Showcase we are once again reunited with the biggest star of the 2000s, John Cena. We've previously seen the leader of the Cenation co-star in the Showcase story featured in WWE 2K15, but he takes center-stage for 2K23. However, unlike previous years, which had you playing as the superstar in question, you actually control the opponents who managed to conquer Cena over the years. Considering the miniscule amount of matches he lost during his prime, the talent you get to wield is high-end from start to finish. The Rock, Rob Van Dam, Kurt Angle and The Undertaker are just a few of the names to prevail over the future WWE Hall of Famer. Focusing on his losses is an odd choice but considering one of his mottos is “Never Give Up,” it makes sense in a way.
Normally, I'm quite a fan of the 2K Showcase mode. It's a creative way to revisit iconic WWE moments. However, this year's version is one of the weakest to date. My issues with it mostly boil down to the lackluster presentation. Cena only provides limited introduction for each match, and there's no commentary or narration during the matches themselves. A generic rock track plays over the action for every match. The moments where they switch back and forth from in-game action to video clips are timed oddly as well. Moments in matches that would have made sense to control are done over video, and moments that could have should been seen via clip are playable. The match selection is a bit odd too. They make some obvious ones, such as his clash with Brock Lesnar at SummerSlam 2014 and his debut against Kurt Angle. Other, such as a Night of Champions match against Triple H, and his squash loss to The Undertaker at WrestleMania 34 could have been skipped. I still enjoyed it from a historical perspective, but it's a step-down from previous years' efforts.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, MyRise this year is the strongest it has been in quite some time. For WWE 2K23, there are separate careers for both male and female wrestlers, with both playing on tropes of the real-life federation. For the men's side, The Lock has you controlling a new talent to the promotion saddled with an unfortunate gimmick. Women get The Legacy which focuses on a young grappler struggling to get out from under the shadow of her Hall of Fame aunt. Both stories do a good job of getting you invested in your superstar's struggles and demonstrate that a career in the profession is often determined just as much by things out of your control as it as by your in-ring skill. The only major complaint I have with them is that the voice acting for your characters is all over the place. Some line readings are extraordinarily cringy and made me want to skip past the dialogue at points.
Universe Mode and MyGM Mode both have the same concept, but one is way more in-depth than the other. Universe remains largely unchanged from last year's release, and for those that appreciated how deep it can get, I'm sure that's a great thing. You are given the option to control the shows from behind the scenes or choose to compete as a specific wrestler and shape their career. There's a lot for you to control here, and while that's nice, the payoff isn't worth it to me. I feel that my time is better spent elsewhere than with fiddling with every little aspect of Raw or SmackDown!
MyGM is still my preferred method of show creating. In this mode you'll step into the shoes of the General Manager for a specific show and square off with your fellow GMs to see who can produce the best overall show. This year's version adds several significant features, such as new GMs (Mick Foley, Eric Bischoff), new shows (WCW, NXT 2.0) and the option for four players to compete against each other. As opposed to the often-unwieldy Universe, it's much easier to jump into this mode and get the hang of producing a good show. The goal of competing against fellow producers also gives it a more enjoyable competitive edge to make it worth dabbling in.
Finally, there's MyFaction, which is still a love it or hate it feature. You've probably seen this kind of mode across another sports franchise at this point. You assemble a stable of wrestlers using cards acquired either through playing the game or by purchasing packs in the online marketplace. This year's version of the mode does offer some big improvements, specifically the option to play online against other factions and unique cards that focus on special superstar moments and outfits. There's no denying that the mode has been improved for 2023, but I still feel queasy about it. Whether it be this, NBA 2K MyTeam or Madden Ultimate Team, the push towards microtransactions remains a major turn-off for me.
Online play is fun, but the real selling point of going online with WWE 2K23 is still the amazing creative community the franchise has fostered. The community for this series continues to churn out fantastic custom creations. Superstars that may have departed for other wrestling promotions or legends that missed the cut are available for download. Throwback arenas and belt designs are also available for download through the title. Being able to augment your roster and game with these creations adds a lot to the overall experience. The creative talents that work on these creations continues to amaze me with their dedication and skill.
As was the case last year, WWE 2K23 is a cross-gen release, and the visuals are still stuck in the weird area between the two. Most of the roster look fantastic, and the developers have done a better job with facial animations this year. They still haven't quite gotten the handle on depicting long hair, though. Arenas continue to look great, and the attention to throwback areas utilized in 2K Showcase and MyRise is appreciated. However, the same level of attention and care hasn't quite made it to the custom superstars yet. You can really see how off-putting their facial animations are during cutscenes in the story mode. Hopefully the franchise can finally make the full jump to current-gen consoles next year, and the visuals can continue to be refined.
Maybe the most impressive thing about the series' turn-around has been the significant cut-down on technical gaffes. 2K23 is a relatively clean experience once again, with most of the issues being carry-overs from last year. The issues with weapon grabbing and collision detection are still there. The same goes for the lengthy load times during MyRise. Outside of those, though, the title continues to perform well. I have had matches with multiple superstars in action at once, and battles outside the confines of the ring that have ran with little issue. Even online play has been remarkably smooth during my time with the game.
WWE 2K23 may not be the drastic improvement last year's release was, but it is another step in the right direction for the series. Small tweaks to the combat engine continue to make competing a more enjoyable experience. The developers have done a solid job of improving most of the included modes as well. MyGM now feels much more fleshed out, and the storytelling of MyRise is as strong as it has ever been. There are still nagging issues, but nothing as troubling as what the franchise used to deal with. If the series can make the full jump to current gen consoles, and they put renewed effort into 2K Showcase, I'm excited to see how next year's iteration turns out.